I’ve lived in Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon) for about 3 months as a digital nomad. I’ve stayed in various parts of D1, D2, D4, and Bình Thạnh. Overall, it’s one of my favorite cities in Southeast Asia, and I plan to spend a lot more time there.
Saigon is one of the “mega cities” of SE Asia, alongside Bangkok, Hanoi, Manila, and Kuala Lumpur. So in this post, I’ll not only share what I like and dislike about HCMC specifically, but how it compares to these other cities, as well.
Pros of Living in Ho Chi Minh City
Keep in mind: I’m a single American male digital nomad in his 30s. I like big cities. I work online. I barely speak any Vietnamese. I don’t drink alcohol or go to clubs. Fitness and health are important to me. All this affects my view of Saigon.
1. Low Cost of Living
Low costs are a big part of the appeal of Southeast Asia for foreigners as a whole—but in my experience, Vietnam is particularly cheap.
Especially when it comes to local food and transportation, Saigon is very affordable:
- Food: Many of my Vietnamese meals end up being under 100,000 VND (~$4 USD). You can even find meals for 15,000 to 30,000 VND (~$1 USD).
- Transport: Riding a Grab Bike taxi across town is often only ~20,000 VND (~$1 USD).
When it comes to Airbnbs, my rooms in Saigon have been about the same price as in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, or Hanoi, and a bit cheaper than Manila. And that’s plenty good for me.
My preference lately is to stay in nice rooms, not just the cheapest thing I can find. Usually in Saigon, I spend $30-50 per night for a nice studio or one-bedroom in a high-rise condo near D1 (the main “downtown” area).
If you’re a fan of high-rise condos, I’d suggest Vinhomes Central Park—or for a cheaper option, I also like Rivergate Apartments in D4 (it’s right across the bridge from D1). Many Airbnb units are available in each.
You can obviously get cheaper rooms, especially if you sign a long-term lease. (Personally I only stay a week or two in each room, so I get a much worse rate.)
I’m sure there are plenty of expats living on $1,000 USD per month or less in Saigon. Of course, you’ll have more comfort and flexibility with $1,500 or $2,000 per month or more.
2. Fast and Easy Transportation
If you’re not familiar, Grab is the SE Asia version of Uber. It’s an app that lets you order cars or motorbikes to give you a ride. And as of mid-2023, the way Grab works in Ho Chi Minh City is incredible.
Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, and other countries have Grab, too… But in Ho Chi Minh City, it seems to be the fastest.
In Thailand, I often have to wait 5 to 20 minutes for my ride to arrive (especially the cars), but in Saigon it’s usually 2 minutes or less before my ride arrives.
Combined with the very low costs, this gives a feeling like I can truly just hop across town anytime I want. It’s quick and affordable, so it’s no big deal to go to another district for something.
Another plus of Grab in Vietnam: The motorbike drivers give you a helmet! In Thailand, they usually don’t. Granted, the helmets are often small and don’t fit me well. But it feels a lot safer than in Thailand.
3. Tons of Great Cafes
If you’re a digital nomad like me, you might like doing work at cafes. Well, there are plenty of options for doing this in Vietnam.
For starters, Vietnam has a great cafe chain called Highlands Coffee, which is everywhere. The Internet is solid, and most locations are not too crowded. It’s been one of my favorite places to do work in public.
Other cafe chains in Saigon include: Phúc Long Coffee and Tea, Katinat Kafe, Starbucks, and Cong Coffee (Cộng Cà Phê).
Personally for me, cafes are just a place to do work—I don’t even drink coffee. That said, Vietnamese coffee is actually world famous. So, if you like coffee, you might grow to love a specific cafe for that reason.
4. Nice Parks and Places to Walk
Saigon has one of my favorite parks in all of SE Asia—Vinhomes Central Park. It’s super clean, with a beautiful view of the Landmark 81 tower, playgrounds and exercise areas, and lots of space to walk around or sit.
Sala Park in D2 and Ben Bach Dang Park in D1 are similarly beautiful and clean, great for walking around, although they are a lot smaller.
On a slightly lower tier in my opinion, Tao Dan Park in D1 and Crescent Lake Park in D7 are decent, as well. “September 23rd Park” in D1 has nice exercise equipment, but there are many rats and cockroaches.
Nguyen Hue Walking Street is another nice place to walk in the evenings in D1. There are usually lots of families and other locals out, chatting and enjoying the public space, with some vendors and performers, as well.
Bui Vien Walking Street is the party street in D1. Similar to Khaosan road in Bangkok, it’s sometimes referred to as a “backpacker area.” It can be another interesting place to walk.
Walking across some of the bridges in Saigon can be very beautiful, too. Overall, there’s quite a few nice places to walk around. I would rank HCMC at least slightly above most cities in SE Asia in this regard.
5. Not as Many Tourists as Thailand
I’ve heard some Vietnamese people say there are “tons of foreigners” in Saigon. But as someone who has spent a lot of time in Bangkok, I can tell you there are many more in Bangkok.
Not to mention, compared to beach destinations like Phuket or Bali, there are way, way fewer tourists in Ho Chi Minh City.
So, relative to other popular destinations in Southeast Asia, there are not as many tourists in Saigon. In Saigon, you feel more like you’re really in a foreign country, not just a tourist spot.
However, if your main goal is connecting with other expats, or partying with other westerners, then maybe you want to be surrounded by lots of foreigners. So it all depends on your preferences.
(I’ve been told that most foreigners stay in the Thao Dien area in D2 of Saigon, by the way… So, if you do want to be surrounded by foreigners, you should consider staying there.)
Saigon also has a bit less of the scuzzy sex tourism stuff compared to Bangkok. Granted, it’s still there. But it’s less “in your face” than in Thailand. And a lot of people may prefer that.
6. Vietnamese Food
Usually, I don’t include the local cuisine as a “pro” or “con” in these articles. After all, we all have different preferences. But in this case, I have to mention it.
Out of every country I’ve visited in the world, Vietnamese is my #1 favorite cuisine. Obviously, your opinion may differ, but here’s what I love about it:
- Relatively healthy. Vietnamese has the lowest adult obesity rate of any country—and of course, that’s at least partly due to the cuisine. Compared to other cuisines, it has a bit less fried food, a bit more vegetables.
- Easy to find vegetarian food. If you want to eat cheap vegetarian food in Saigon, just look for “quán chay”—it means vegetarian restaurant. There are lots of places with great tofu and mock-meat options for low prices.
- Not much spicy food. I don’t like spicy food. And so, this is one reason Vietnamese food is above Thai food in my personal rankings.
- Cheap. I already mentioned this above, but it’s worth emphasizing how affordably you can eat local food in Vietnam. Even if you get it delivered to your room via Grab.
Personally, when I think of Vietnamese food, I picture a big soup full of rice noodles, tofu, and vegetables, for $2 USD. Add some spring rolls or “bánh bao” steamed bun… So good!
Cons of Living in Ho Chi Minh City
Any great city still has cons—so what’s annoying or difficult about Ho Chi Minh City? Here are a few things I’ve noticed.
1. Traffic Is a Little… Crazy
Honestly, I felt conflicted about listing this as a “con,” because it actually has some charm to me. But Saigon traffic is pretty insane—especially as a foreigner who’s new to it.
The traffic in Saigon is not even “bad” in the usual sense of “bad traffic.” That is, I haven’t seen “traffic jams” in Saigon where you’re just sitting in gridlock and not moving.
Rather, Saigon traffic is crazy in the sense of like, 1,000 motorbikes flying directly at you when you’re trying to cross the street. So, it can feel kind of chaotic and dangerous.
Compared to other countries in SE Asia, Vietnam has even more motorbikes. The traffic is mostly motorbikes, not cars. And they don’t always stop at red lights.
In my view, Saigon traffic is like when you see swarms of fish or birds in nature, all swimming or flying together miraculously. But instead of birds, it’s motorbikes, all beeping their horns to communicate their position in the flock.
Personally, I think driving might be harder and scarier in Saigon than most other places abroad.
Crossing the street is even scary for your first ~month in the city. But eventually, you learn to just start walking across the street, slowly and confidently, and let the motorbikes go around you.
Oh, also: Sometimes the motorbikes just go ahead and drive on the sidewalks, too. Yeah, that’s a thing in Vietnam. I’ve nearly been hit several times. So, please be careful when walking on the sidewalks.
2. Petty Theft
Personally, I haven’t had anything stolen in Vietnam. However, I’ve heard a lot of stories, from expats and locals both, about people getting their phones or bags stolen.
The most common situation is that someone drives by on a motorbike, snatches your phone or bag, and speeds away.
So, be mindful when using your phone in public. Don’t walk across the street holding your phone loosely out in the open. Clutch it firmly, or put it away.
This can happen in any country, but it seems to be more common in Vietnam than in Thailand, for example. So I’d list it as a con of Saigon at this point. You need to be careful about holding onto your stuff.
3. English Proficiency Isn’t Great
If you don’t speak Vietnamese, you’re going to have some moments where communication breaks down. I mean, you’ll be fine in most cases. You’ll get by. But it’ll cause some inconveniences.
Communicating to taxi drivers can be hard if you’re not using an app like Grab. Sometimes, even if you tell them the name of your destination in Vietnamese, you’ll pronounce it wrong and they won’t understand.
Vietnam is actually ranked as “Medium Proficiency” in English, which is not horrible. But that’s an average for the whole country.
In my experience, if you compare the common nomad destinations of Vietnam vs Thailand, Thailand seems to have better English on average. It’s probably because people in Thailand are more used to catering to foreign tourists.
That said, it really depends on the luck of who you talk to. There are plenty of Vietnamese people who are fluent in English. It’s just not everyone.
4. The Weather Is… Not Perfect
First, let me say: I’d gladly take the weather of Saigon over the cold winters of my American hometown any day. So, it’s not that bad. That said, it’s tropical. And that’s not for everybody.
It’s usually hot and humid—and depending on the season, it rains a lot. The daily “high” temps are around 31 to 34 degrees Celsius (88 to 93 Fahrenheit) basically all year.
One of my Vietnamese friends told me Saigon “cools down” in the evening a bit more than Hanoi (the northern capital of Vietnam). But in my experience, I still often get sweaty walking around in the evenings in Saigon.
If you exercise outside, you basically get drenched in sweat. It’s ok—you get used to it… but I’m not going to pretend it’s great. It’s a bit of a con for me.
I’ve mostly stayed in Ho Chi Minh City during the rainy season (roughly May to November). During some weeks, it has even rained every day, although usually just for a short period in the afternoon.
I’ve even seen flooding once or twice—pictured above—but it’s not a common problem in most of the parts of Saigon where I’ve stayed.
5. Visa Options Are Limited
If you really want to live long-term in Vietnam, you may struggle to find a convenient visa that allows you to do so.
As I write this in July 2023, most digital nomads in Vietnam are using the 30-day e-visas to be in the country. This requires you to leave the country every month.
You can potentially do a quick “visa run” to Cambodia or another nearby country, and come right back in, to get another 30 days in Vietnam… But it’s kind of a hassle.
Supposedly, there is a 90-day visa coming back soon. So that will make things a bit more convenient.
But as of now, Vietnam does not have a convenient long-term retirement visa. And they don’t have any equivalent to Thailand’s “Elite Visa” where you can essentially pay for unlimited access to the country.
Of course, Vietnam does have long-term business visas and spouse visas. So if you “commit” to Vietnam in one of those ways, you should be able to get a long-term visa that way.
But overall, the visa options are more limited in Vietnam than nearby countries like Thailand, at least for now.
Overall, Saigon is one of my favorite places to stay in Southeast Asia. It’s a bit less developed than Bangkok, but it has a unique flavor and some distinct advantages over Bangkok, as well. Definitely worth trying if you like big cities!